BOSTON – It started again with the eyes. But it’s always the eyes. Kevin Garnett is 36 years old now, and the eyes burn like they did when he was 28 and could only dream of someday clutching an NBA championship trophy.
Yet even with that title now, he forever yearns for something more, raising his arms, pleading with teammates not gifted with such a fury. He dunked earlier in this Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers and he dangled on the rim and howled into the roar. He shouts in the locker room. He still pounds his heart to the crowd.
“He’s had 17 years of playing hard,” Celtics center Ryan Hollins said. “I don’t know if a player ever has played 17 years hard on both ends of the floor.”
“We feed off his energy,” Celtics center Greg Stiemsma said.
Once again the Celtics needed the eyes on Monday. They needed the old fury. The Sixers had turned this series into a fight Boston didn’t need. And for a half the Celtics looked tired and old and broken down. And then came Garnett.
The play that everyone will remember was an offensive foul charged to Garnett when his body collided with that of Sixers center Spencer Hawes. Both men were in the air. Garnett was shooting. The crowd in the T.D. Garden roared its rage. Garnett’s eyes were wide and alive. The Sixers were leading by two points at the time. But something changed at that instant.
Sixers coach Doug Collins would later reference it. So did Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
When asked later, Garnett stared blankly ahead and said he didn’t remember the play even though he will probably never forget it.
The reality is Garnett didn’t need a shaky call in the third quarter to inspire himself. He had been pushing the Celtics for days, screaming, challenging, begging them to care as much as he. Three days before, Boston had come unraveled in the third quarter in Philadelphia. That great collapse started with Garnett fuming over a technical foul, then boiling over the hand slaps and shoves from the Sixers.
All these years later, everything still goes through him. People will look at Monday’s score sheet and see that Brandon Bass had 27 points, and they will make this game about him or they will assess Stiemsma’s 10 points and figure the game was about him, too. But like everything else here, the game was about Garnett.
As Hollins would later say: “I thought Kevin had a great first half, just holding us together.”
They call this “K.G. being K.G.” As if everything – the screaming into the night, the fights for rebounds, the theatrical pounding of his chest – could be summed up in an expression so trite. And yet it describes so much about who they are.
Now that Chris Bosh is hurt in Miami, a window that should have been shut has opened again for Boston. These Eastern Conference playoffs are meandering toward a Celtics-Heat showdown. Garnett’s fury vs. LeBron James' new desire to define his legacy. There seems no way Garnett is going to let this go now. Not this close.
Whatever hope the 76ers had allowed themselves to have after stealing Game 4 was squashed on Monday.
Long after the game was over, Celtics guard Ray Allen said this had become “a Brandon-and-Kevin series.” He was referring to the way the Sixers are playing defense, trying to take away the Celtics guards, forcing the big men to win the game. The fact is, it’s always been a Kevin Garnett series. When he summons whatever fire he can and doesn't make mistakes, the Celtics win. When he sets bad picks late in games or lets the Sixers get inside his head, he fizzles.
On Monday, he was strong. And when he was called for that foul in the third quarter that didn’t make much sense to the Celtics or the fans in the arena, he came back and hit a jump shot. Then he let Bass score and score and score.
Later, he talked about the crowd.
He talked about the roaring.
He talked about always seeing “a drunk fat man” jumping up and down.
And he was asked what it feels like to be him and to hear such a noise falling down all around.
“It’s like taking a cold shower and stepping into a freezer,” he said.
It was such a Garnett thing to say. Insane, heartfelt and driven, all at once. The way he said it, you almost got the sense he had tried it – if for nothing else than to feel the rush of the cold chilling his body.
The Celtics are too close to something big again. There’s no way he’s going to let them forget it.
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